Chapter 4 Part 1: Reinvention. Adventures in Sufism: Stories from a Bronx Childhood by Michael Greenstein

Dream

I was observing someone put together a life size, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of me.  Most of the pieces do not fit together. Some are very large and are being shaped down by hand to fit the outline.  Other pieces are the right size but these don’t fit either.  These too are twisted and torn to fit the outline.


QCC

It was drilled into our heads when we were quite young that we were going to college, to make something of ourselves and take the opportunity that my father never had.  It was also clear that we were going to stay at home and go to the free city colleges.  There was no other option.  But as my high school grades continued to decline, it never occurred to me that I might not qualify for one of the four-year schools.  But that’s exactly what happened. In those years the city colleges were held in high esteem. Open admission was a few years away.  The baby boomers applied and the required average to get in went up. In fact, it was .01 higher than my high school average.  I knew of one other kid in my predicament.  He argued, begged and pleaded and was admitted into Lehman College in the Bronx.  I took my notice of admission to Queensborough Community College as a deserved punishment and kept quiet. It was not easy for a Science graduate to admit going to a community college but I was so glad to get out of Science, and looking forward to a new beginning.

Queensborough was located on a former golf course.  The Administration Building was in the Clubhouse and many of the classrooms were in makeshift prefab units.  They also rented space in a shopping area a half mile away. This odd layout made it a real challenge to set my class schedule. They were just building up the campus and all the mud and the dust were fine with me.  It added a sense of excitement, energy and growth.  I liked being there.  Compared to Science, the kids were dullards, but I felt I was seeing another side to life. Some of these kids were pretty wealthy and showed it.  Many had their own new model cars and drove them regularly to school.  Girls payed more attention to their wardrobe and dressed stylishly.  Some of the students were just returning to school after serving in the army and were considerably older than I was. There was greater diversity, even for Queens.  Only a handful of blacks graduated in my senior year at Science but there were proportionately more in attendance at Queensborough.

My father insisted that I wear a white shirt and tie to school every day. He wanted me to stand out and for the teachers to notice me.  Well, he got what he wanted.  Everyone noticed and I felt like a fool.  After some kids got to know me they would ask me why I did it.  I couldn’t tell them that even at my age, my life was run by a tyrannical father. It was simply easier to take responsibility for it and say that I wanted to make a good impression.  No one bought into this reasoning, but after repeating it a few times, they began to leave me alone.

I had to take a language and I started fresh with German, the nemesis of my brother’s college career. I liked it and did well in my class.  In fact, in my second term, I was eager to read some of my favorite authors, Hesse, Rilke and Zweig.  I went to the library and armed with a dictionary, read the German weekly magazine, Der Stern, and tried my hand at the works of these authors.  I also found some German children’s books and was surprised how difficult they were for me.  I was doing fairly well with my translations but there was only so much time I could devote to this activity.  I also had to take a mandatory gym class and took basketball and volleyball.  I never played volleyball before and was surprisingly good for a short guy.  But I never played a game of basketball in my life and my teacher wasn’t about to teach me.   On the day we were going to be graded we were assigned to 3 on 3 teams.  My team was composed of abject losers like me.  The other team was stacked with superstars.  It started and ended in a rout but some curious things happened along the way.   I stole the ball from one of the jocks twice and although I couldn’t dribble more than two steps without turning the ball over, I received catcalls of appreciation from the crowd of students and my teacher.  Fifty percent of the final grade was a paper and pencil test on the rules.  Most kids took this for granted.  I studied up, aced it, and received an “A” in the course.

Two Women

As part of my makeover in QCC, I decided to face my fears and ask out one of the beautiful young women I admired.  After a couple of weeks of scouting around, I asked out a girl in my English class who had coffee with me.  She flushed, turned red and said that if circumstances were different, she would have enjoyed going out but she had just become engaged two weeks before and her ring was being resized. I didn’t know what to say but my experiment with women was over for the moment.   I didn’t ask another girl out that year.

As the term went on, I became friendly with a tall German girl.  We would go over homework, meet for coffee and hang out when we had free time.  She was my buddy.  Like many others at QCC, she lived a very different life than me.  She lived in a private house, was wealthy, had close family ties, was involved in her community, was proud of her heritage and marched every year in the Pulaski Day parade.  One day, with a shock of understanding, it occurred to me that she was falling in love with me.  She was just waiting for me to notice.  And when I did, I couldn’t look at her the same way.  I felt overwhelmed, intruded upon and not deserving of her feelings.  I picked a fight with her, which was not easy, and wound up telling her that I hated all Nazi sympathizers.  I knew she did not believe a word I was saying but she got the point that I wanted to hurt her and that was enough. I continued to wonder if I would ever get it right with a woman.

Waking Up to Life

It was an unusually warm spring Sunday.  I had loads of work to do for school and didn’t want to stay cooped up in my bedroom.  So knowing I was apt to be distracted by any and everything, I took a book and went downstairs.  I found a bench opposite a tree, sat down and started reading.  I wasn’t there long when the warmth of the sun, an occasional cool breeze and the noises from passers-by seeped into awareness.  I stayed with this feeling, this “being-in-the-moment,” and imperceptibly, it filled my consciousness. My sense of self, my boundary with the physical world, dissolved. It was as if a veil had fallen from my eyes and I was now looking upon my environment with an understanding that was intellectual, visceral, emotional, and intuitive, all at the same time. In one moment there was dissolution and what remained was clarity.  I sensed the life force of the man passing in front of me, of the tree and of all living things. At that moment I knew something ineffable that I had never known before.  Its “rightness” was self evident.  This experience was a brush with Truth, a glimpse into the realm of the Divine Intelligence.

And then as incredible as this experience was, it was over and everyday perception returned.  I went to the supermarket to find my friend Howie who was working as a stock boy to tell him about it.  I didn’t know what to say and blurted something about being one with nature.  I realized how strange this sounded and I thought he might think that I went off the deep end.  I was glad when he didn’t have time to talk. The thought entered my head that maybe I was crazy, but the experience was so positive and uplifting, I knew it couldn’t be a hallucination. This was something I could not have imagined.  It seemed super–real.

For the next several years I found my mission. I wanted to know about this experience and I wanted to experience it again.  I relied upon my trusty companions, the library and the bookstore.  If I wasn’t crazy, others must have had experiences like this.  I was determined to find out and it didn’t take long.  I read Aldous Huxley’s accounts of his experiments with hallucinogens, found Burke’s marvelous Cosmic Consciousness, read of oceanic experiences described by Sigmund Freud and rediscovered Hesse.  This was just the beginning.  If people wrote books like this, there must be people still having these extra-perceptual experiences.  I vowed to seek them out and learn from them.

CCNY

I did well enough at QCC at the end of my first year to transfer to a four-year college and picked CCNY.  My brother had gone there and I was a little familiar with the urban campus. It had a better reputation than Queens College, had a more diverse student body, and I was already battle tested from years on public transportation. Besides, I didn’t quite relate to the well-heeled student body at QCC. I hoped to link up with some old Bronx cronies and enjoy a better social experience, but this never happened.

Chemistry

I thought I knew a lot of chemistry from high school, or at least I thought I did, having taken chemistry, analytical chemistry and the history and development of science.  I had also taken a year of biology at QCC and had done OK, but I was not ready for the introductory science class at City: A big lecture class where the material is presented so fast you don’t have time to think and small recitation sections headed up by grad students.  So much was presented as fact to be memorized.  I wanted to know how these facts were arrived at.  I asked question after question of the grad student until he said, “psychology major, right?” And when I nodded, he told me that I couldn’t ask another question in class.  He said that he would speak with me privately in his office and would give me as much time as I needed.  I hated the idea of spending more time on chemistry, but I took him up on it and he was gracious once we were alone.

Lisa, my lab partner was an attractive dark skinned woman from the Dominican Republic.  When I asked her out she told me that she was living with her boyfriend, but most definitely would have gone out with me otherwise.  These “almosts” meant as much to me as the real thing.  Both of us were floundering in class but with all the help I received after school, I still didn’t do well on tests.  The standardized mid-term was a killer.  We had heard that most people did poorly and that grades would be scored along a curve.  Our papers were handed out and Lisa grabbed mine out of my hands before I could see it.  She burst into laughter and ran around the lab, teasing me mercilessly.  My heart sank when I saw the grade, the lowest I had ever received:19.  The passing mark was 35.  Lisa refused to tell me what she got until after class I nearly tore her books apart to see her paper.  When I finally got my hands on it, she looked at me with the funniest grin on her face: 11.

I continued my one-on-ones with my lab teacher but I feared the final exam.  At last, I told my teacher, “If you fail me, I’m going to take this class over again with you.”  I got a “C” in the course and when I received my grade, stood over a garbage can and ripped out every page in the textbook.

Esther

I first met Esther in my senior year in High School.  She was cute, small, Jewish, had brown eyes and hair and was the only girl in the entire school who was engaged so, of course, for me, it was love at first sight.    There was no point in speaking to her about my feelings as I wouldn’t even know what to say. She was unavailable and I was left to my yearnings and feeling sorry for myself.  I did not see her for 2 years until my sophomore year in City College. First thing I noticed:  No ring. I still felt the undeniable pull of my first attraction to her. She was adorable, charming, and smart.  There was something here that was more than lustful yearnings. I asked her out on a date and was thrilled when she said yes.  I never had a girlfriend and was lost in uncharted territory.

It took me well over an hour, using a bus, two trains and a three visa checkpoints to get to Burnside Avenue in the Bronx from Jamaica, Queens.  No matter, I was exhilarated.  In my eagerness not to be late I arrived at her apartment building much too early and waited outside before going up.  In one of the more amazing coincidences in my life, who should walk by but Harriet, my first heart throb.  She was exactly the same as when we were children, only now a beautiful young woman.  She was with a gorgeous guy and they were hurrying somewhere. All the old confused feelings of longing and not measuring up came rushing forward.  She caught my eye and stopped short.  “Harriet,” I blurted out. She smiled warmly, spoke my name and asked what I was doing there.  “Who’s Harriet?” demanded the hunk?  I understood at once that I was now talking to Linda. It was her middle name.  We made some small talk and Linda asked me what I was doing there.  When I told her that I was going on a date she asked why I didn’t go upstairs. If I could answer that question, I would be a very different person, perhaps more of the person I wanted to be. A person who felt comfortable with himself and with others.  I fumbled some response when the gorgeous guy tugged at her arms to get going.  I was too embarrassed to ask Linda for her phone number.  I felt overwhelmed with conflicting feelings. Her beauty reduced me to silence. It was like I was back in Hebrew School. I wanted to re-establish some relationship with her, but the promise of Esther beckoned in my mind.  I didn’t know what I wanted as I watched her walk slowly away, her head turned back towards me as if giving me one last chance to call out to her. I never saw her again.

Esther and I went out about every other week for three months. I babysat the other weeks to make money for our dates. I hardly ever spoke to her on the phone during the week.  Even though we got on great during our dates, I felt nervous and unsure on the phone and uncomfortable with silences.  Nor did we meet at school as our schedules conflicted.  Ours was a pretty chaste relationship.  There was holding and kissing but not much else.  We mostly went to the movies or out to eat.  We spent very little time alone when we didn’t have an activity planned. Her father was often up reading the paper in the living room when we returned from a date.  This clearly bugged Esther and we only retreated to her bedroom. Her mother loved me.  If only her daughter felt the same way.

I saved up to go out to a play and night club on New Year’s Eve.  It was bitterly cold and if I hadn’t already spent the money, I would have preferred to do nothing.   Still, New Year’s was New Year’s and I planned to confess my feelings to her, which were pretty obvious by now.   Back at the apartment, after a decent date, everything fell apart.  Esther saw where my conversation was going and tried to avoid going there.  But I couldn’t help myself.  I told her I was “crazy about her” and she said “don’t be.” I left the house and cried my way back to Queens.

My relationship with Esther was doomed from the start. I was too unsure of myself and she did not care enough about me.   My father, of all people, had sensed this and tried to warn me off, but I couldn’t hear such a message, especially from him and especially in his unique manner of delivery.  “Dummmp her!  She’s no good for you.  She’s a taker!  Dump her!”   When the inevitable happened he was actually sympathetic.  He never saw me so depressed and didn’t know what to do.  I was in a fugue state, going through the motions of my daily routine without any emotional attachment.  I had not only lost someone I loved, I lost what I thought was my only hope for love and acceptance.  Howie, trying to console me, gave me sound advice. He said, “Don’t be a beggar in love.”  But that was a good description of how I felt.  I would have given anything to get back together with her. To go back to exactly the way it was, whether that was the best thing for me or not.  With me pining for her, hoping that she would love me and heal me.

A few days afterwards, I was in my bedroom, bent over my grandmother’s small vanity mirror on my dresser to check out the latest condition of my tempermental skin.  As I gazed into the mirror, to my horror, I saw large sections of my face broken up into oblong swirls of living protoplasm.  I stepped back in fright and caught my image in the large dresser mirror and I appeared whole.  But I did not have time to react.  For I felt something course through my veins, circulating throughout my entire body. I was aware of an intricate flow though it wasn’t blood; it was the essence of evil.

When I dared look into the small mirror later that evening, my image remained whole, but the feeling of my evil presence remained.  At first it was only a slow sense of movement, almost unobtrusive like a dull headache or minor tooth pain that you can ignore for small periods of time.  But the feeling intensified to that of an emanation, like heat radiating off the body after a workout.  No longer was the   evil merely circulating through me, I now felt that I could spread it to others.

Immediately I realized that I was sick, that my perceptions and feelings were part of a hallucination but this did not stop me from feeling the way I did.  I knew I needed help and remembered hearing that a friend of a friend had gone to see a counselor at school.  I went to classes the next day and to the administration building counseling office.  I was told that I could make an appointment in two weeks. But this could not wait. I insisted on seeing someone right then and was told to wait.  After an hour I was ushered into the cramped office of a bored, middle aged man.  I had clearly upset his plans for the day and he made it clear that this had better be worthwhile.  This was not what I needed.  I fidgeted uncomfortably and told him I was unsure about what I wanted in life and searched for signs that I could trust him.  He went on a hunt for some papers on his desk, and without looking up, told me to come back in a week and he would give me a series of tests that would help me in the decision making process.  I thanked him and left.  Clearly, I needed help, but I didn’t know where else to look.

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